Red 7, 1/6
I've been humming Nick Lowe's 1985 rockabilly cover "7 Nights to Rock" a lot as my official Austin Free Week theme song. The Rose of England isn't Lowe's best work by a long shot (that's the one where he tragically brought in Huey Lewis to desecrate "I Knew the Bride") but I thought even more of the Basher and his ultimately successful struggle to remain relevant in middle age watching several young bands at Red 7 Wednesday night.
The particular challenge facing the artist in this particular niche -- in Lowe's time it was called "pub rock" -- is how to mature gracefully while continuing to legitimately produce music that sounds off-the-cuff, scruffy, not overly professional. Punk musicians faced the same difficulty, but were eventually able to develop a narrow, orthodox definition of their sound that prevented confusion (and also ensured that the only interesting punk music made since the very early 80's was generally disapproved of by its theoretical core audience). What was "pub rock" in 70's England was lumped in with the more nebulous "new wave" in the 1980's U.S. and retroactively became "indie rock," although that term didn't denote a particular sound rather than a business status until the mid-90's or so.
I rather prefer the anachronistic "pub rock" because it actually relates to what the music sounds like, rather than how it is sold. Lowe and Elvis Costello (initially) and Wreckless Eric and Ian Dury made excellent music to lift glasses to, kept simple enough that the boys in the band could join in the revels without being rendered incapable of playing their instruments. It was irreverent music, but associated informally with a long tradition that required populist touches. The melodies should be strong. The lyrics should be audible and tell stories to which the listener can relate. The songs should be simple, partially reconstructed at times from older folk ("folk" in this context meaning anything from Celtic string bands to the Rolling Stones) but not so obviously thieved that a rowdy and knowledgeable crowd will call you out for it. The tunes should mostly be fast, but there should be a slow one or two in the mix so that the couples in the audience can lurch unsteadily in each other's embrace towards the end of the set. In brief music that sounds simple but requires a craftsman's hand and much sweating of details to fully succeed.
For pub rockers now and then, the trick is to hide the seams. You want songs that are clever and original, but you don't want to seem like prog rockers or professionals while playing them. La Snacks, the best of the bands Wednesday night, have this approach perfected. Their songs are detailed and smartly constructed, but they don't play them elegantly. It's as if they were a nice piece of furniture carefully and professionally assembled, but then with just a few hinges and screws deliberately removed in strategic places to assure that the desk wobbles all over the place (but never collapses completely). This is hard to do. A lesser band would simply play it straight to the ranting of frontman Robert Segovia, but the guitar-bass-drums trio in La Snacks allows Segovia's particular gravity and his tendency to stretch out and emphasize lines in weird, not strictly musical places to pull their playing apart slightly. The effect of this is hard to describe. It's more cumulative than restricted to any single "wow" moment, but by the end of the set, I found my natural tendency to reduce and criticize utterly overwhelmed. I felt more like finding people and persuading them to listen to the band. Like a fan, and I hardly ever feel that way about new bands these days.
It's true that they have a couple of songs that don't change very much, but the chemistry between Segovia and the band is such that even their repetitive pieces have peaks and valleys, tension and release. They remind me of so many different bands that I love -- The Fall, Art Brut, Fugazi, Guided by Voices, even (oddly, but delightfully) Rage Against the Machine -- but they're defined by their songs, not their sound, so they're seldom imitating. They even played a slow one, with their drummer moving to keys and a clunky rhythm loop holding the beat down. It was one of my favorite songs of their whole set.
What's more, they have star power! I've largely given up on trying to take local bands to task for having no stage presence, because outside of the genres where it's still cool to look like you care about your own music (hip-hop and metal mostly) nobody has any. Nothing against their great records, but it's a sign of the times when Spoon are the dominant "indie rock" force in Austin -- every Spoon show I've attended has had all the energy on stage of a regional water reclamation committee meeting. La Snacks have a singer who has a stage persona and acts it out in force, wittily haranguing the crowd and singing his lyrics audibly -- almost as if he wanted people to listen to them! Segovia's songs have storylines, setups, and payoffs, and they also are dense with rock-nerd references if you care to go digging for them. (Which I do -- the tune that begins "I had a dream/crazy dream" is cribbing from Led Zep's "The Song Remains the Same.") La Snacks bring off these little nods with attitude and their own spin -- it's not plagiarism, it's commentary. It's yet another dimension than makes them a band I want to hear more and more of, rather than yet another that exhausts their range after two and half songs.
The other two acts on the bill who could be compared to La Snacks (excluding Opposite Day, who can't really be compared to anybody and we'll get to later) suffered by the contrast. Frantic Clam don't write lazy songs, but they have no vocal charisma whatsoever and their decision to perform two slavish note-for-note covers of well-known songs (New Order's "Ceremony" and the Talking Heads' "Psycho Killer") was a fiasco. First of all, if you're going to play covers, play something that most of the people in the audience haven't probably learned to play themselves at some point or another. Second of all, don't copy every element of the original down to the drum patterns and the guitar tone. It's lame. After the first, I found myself listening for their influences in their originals with a sharper ear because the unimaginative, mechanical nature of their "Ceremony" made me question their musicianship. I enjoyed their first tune, and I liked some of their recordings, but after that lousy cover, all I could hear was how this song had a Pixies bassline and that song had Pavement-style guitar sound. Just when I was beginning to recover from the first boring cover, here comes their "Psycho Killer," so bloodlessly replicated from the original recording that by closing my eyes I could see the guitar note chart from Rock Band 2 scrolling in my head.
The Midgetmen don't face the same problem when it comes to originality. They have three singers and they're each quite distinct. The balance in their show between the three keeps things fresh to a certain degree. But what they do have is a huge imbalance in talent level, one that's weird to see in Austin where water usually finds its level -- OK players group with OK ones, shredders gravitate towards other shredders, musicians who suck keep each other warm and safe in shared denial. But The Midgetmen have one guitarist who's excellent, another guitarist who's not bad, and their bass player and the drummer are terrible, to the degree that they render every moment of the band's playing unpleasant to listen to. Drummers: If people in the audience begin to wince every time you start to play, you're playing too loud. If you feel like you need more attention, trying playing better instead of louder. Bass players: It's not your job to give your own independent interpretation of where you think a secondary emphasis in the song's rhythm might possibly be, if you were skilled enough to even play the part you think you're playing. Find the beat and stay on it.
In this company, Opposite Day stood out like colonists from an alien musical dimension. It was a peculiar bill for the trio, but I imagine Opposite Day have a lot of difficulty finding bands with whom they share musical territory. They're just different. Normally you see a lineup of bands and they're all using basically the same rhythms and the same chords, but Opposite Day simply aren't -- hence the name I suppose. They reflexively use time signature changes, long phrase lengths, jazz polyrhythms, unique chord voicings and bass scales. All of these are almost entirely absent from the rock music of the last 30 years. What's even more singular about them is that their core is in pop (as opposed to jazz or metal or prog) and their compositions actually have dazzling melodies and harmonies if you can train your brain to listen for them. They're fantastic, but I regretfully concede that you'd almost have to be a musician to follow or appreciate them in any meaningful way. I really admire the way they make their occasional heavy moments flow naturally from the less aggressive sections. It never seems done for effect, only as a natural progression in their impeccable group logic. I would love to hear them collaborate with a really gonzo lyricist, someone whose instincts for storytelling and wild ambitions with the written word matched their musical reach. Because what Opposite Day really need to do is get weirder, clearly.